Retrospection Revisited

Back when we were all incarcerated for nine months in “State Pen” PA, and no one lived any place else, I had this idea. Said idea was the product of many pensive afternoons spent sitting in the shadow of one of the science buildings on campus. I can’t remember the name of it presently, but I remember I called it “The Shrine of Science” in multiple journal entries and poetry compositions. Hell, it might not have even HAD a name. It was just this really cool, U-shaped building that had its own courtyard. Said courtyard had the usual accoutrements: benches, trees, trashcans (no ash-trays then; society had not evolved in 1996-1997 to the point that it felt ash-trays were necessary). My customary position in said courtyard, however, was not reclining on one of the benches like the sun-lovers, or leaning up against one of the trees like the nature-lovers. No. My customary position was seated atop an steel grate, beneath which howled an ancient generator. Subsequent years and their accompanying wisdom have helped me to realize that what I postulated in my imaginative mind THEN to be a Morlock stronghold or a Gatekeeper of the Beam was, in fact, nothing more than a commercial-sized heater, and my reason for sitting there was not wholly symbolic—an English Major sitting in “The Shrine of Science,” scribbling entries in his journal—but practical, i.e. it gets really fucking cold in “State Pen” in October, and stays that way until late March/early April.

One frigid afternoon… I think it was in January or February of 1997… I formulated this idea whilst warming my ass on the completely pedestrian heater grate inlaid in the walkway that was my customary resting place in “The Shrine of Science.” I was smoking a cigarette and drinking a Mountain Dew (not an uncommon sight, as anyone who was incarcerated with me in “State Pen” for those nine months in 1996-1997 will attest to), and completely independent of anything else, I began thinking about my life. All 21 ½ years of it. Where I’d come from; where I was; where I was going. Admittedly, I was very, VERY confused at the time and this thought process quickly segued in to another: Why not write an epic poem called “Retrospection” looking back over the course of my life from a poet’s standpoint in an attempt to gain some clarity and direction on my current situation? At the time, the idea seemed ingenious. And the initial stages of composing “Retrospection” were quite enlightening. I started seeing my situation with a clarity that I hadn’t had before. The two-three weeks spent working on “Retrospection” were, academically, my best in “State Pen.” In fact, were it not for the sheer amount of “academic” work I did in those two-three weeks, I likely would not have graduated in May of 1997. My 60.7 average in my Ed Psych class would have ended up on the wrong side of the letter “D” and I would have been forced to prolong my stay in “State Pen” for another couple of months. Thankfully, my incarceration ended in May and I was allowed to graduate with my class, thus achieving the goal I’d set for myself of graduating in four years and NO MORE… albeit with a relatively meaningless undergraduate degree and a mountain of debt that didn’t get paid off until the summer of 2005.

Yet something happened around the 10th or 11th Stanza of “Retrospection.” I looked at what I was writing, and realized that what I was writing had absolutely, positively no bearing on anyone or anything but myself. It wasn’t even poetry. It was a glorified journal entry with one or two rhyming couplets per stanza. Was it serving its purpose? Yes. But did I foresee a greater purpose in what I was composing after re-reading the first 10-11 stanzas? No. And as any honest artist—writer or otherwise—will tell you, we do what we do not solely for our “art.” Any artist that tells you that is full of shit. We do what we do because we want our work to appeal to a greater demographic. In short, we want our 15 minutes of fame and god DAMNIT, we want it NOW. This desire doesn’t always pan out. I’m not exactly raking in the royalties from the work I’ve published. But long-term, THAT is my goal. Not simply to spend the rest of my natural life writing for ME and me alone, but to one day write things that will entertain others. Make them laugh, make them cry: kind of like “Cats” (shout out to the Royal Masque, circa 1992-1993, and Barricade Productions circa 1993-1994). Shortly thereafter, “Retrospection” perished, never to be seen again. I don’t quite remember what I did with the 20 or so hand-written, loose leaf pages that contained it, but knowing my propensity for extravagance back then I likely burned it or sacrificed it to the “Shrine of Science” gods.

Amazingly, though, this idea of “retrospection” has never left me. Privately, I’ve done it multiple times. Never publicly. I don’t think that the term “retrospect” or any derivative thereof has ever appeared in a single blog post or email I’ve composed in the last decade plus. Until now, of course. I feel that it IS important to look back over the course of your life on occasion. It helps put things in to perspective. Am I at a point in my life currently where I feel directionless? Confused? Am I sitting atop a proverbial heating grate of my own creation in my own, subjective reality, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Mountain Dew whilst staring out at the steel-grey sky overhead, and the small flakes of snow that alight gently, soundlessly upon the black-iron benches and the leafless trees that dot the U-shaped courtyard of my mind? No. I’m sitting behind my desk at work on a Saturday morning, listening to “But, Honestly” by the Foo Fighters, a Diet Dr. Pepper close at hand and the prospect of a cigarette about as far from my mind as it’s been in almost a decade (my recent bout of “sinusitis” has all but rid me of that nasty habit, it seems). The temperature outside is a balmy 71 degrees (Heat Index: 80+) and the next precipitation forecasted for Royersford, PA (where I am now) and Broomall, PA (where I’ll be in a few hours) isn’t until overnight tonight. Not snow, but thunder storms. “Thunder Boomers” as my little sister Katie used to say.

Directionless? Confused? Certainly not. During my incarceration in “State Pen” back in 1996-1997, I was penniless. I was not jobless, but my job as a nighttime circulation clerk at the Pollock Library paid me a $150.00 post-tax stipend every two weeks, a stipend that promptly went toward cigarettes, alcohol, McDonalds Chicken McNuggets and occasionally my rent and utilities. My relationships usually lasted no longer than 24-48 hours, generally from Friday night at midnight (when I got done work) through Saturday or Sunday evening (don’t get the wrong idea, friends. As anyone that spent any portion of those nine months with me in “State Pen” will tell you, I was not a man-whore. I was just a guy who liked to hook-up with random women from time to time, regardless of whether those women were people I just met or people I’d known for years. Not a man-whore, just a bit of a chauvinist). My home was a two-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor of Calder Commons which I shared with three rent-paying roommates (one male and two females) and one or two non-rent paying roommates (you know who you are “Vato”). I drank copious amounts of alcohol and smoked copious amounts of weed. And I was LOST in every sense of the word.

Now? I work a steady job that pays me well, albeit an, at times, less-than fulfilling employment. My bi-weekly allowance is the $50.00-$150.00 that my wife deposits in my checking account dependent on when our mortgage and our bills are due. I generally don’t see the rest and I’m fine with that (one thing my 34 ¾ year old, 6’ 1”, 280 LB frame does NOT need at this point is a bi-weekly rationing of Chicken McNuggets). I’ve been in a relationship with the same woman for nine years this November (married for five this October 15th) and my home is a three bedroom, one and a half bathroom Colonial on a little street in suburbia that I share with my wife and our 11 month old daughter, Cara, not to mention our two cats Pandora and Roxy, and this week, my “dog-in-law” Melanie. I drink copious amounts of Diet Dr. Pepper and haven’t smoked a joint in a very, VERY long time. But ask me if I’m directionless or confused and I’ll scoff at you before smiling and telling you that no, my friends. For the first time in 35 years on this side of the proverbial wormhole of existence, i.e. my subjective reality, I’m FOUND. I’m a gosh-darned living, breathing testimony to “Amazing Grace,” along with remaining a living, breathing facsimile of a smiley face.

“Have a Nice Day.”

But you knew that, didn’t you? If you’re reading this, everything that I just wrote save for the bit about my “dog-in-law” and perhaps my proclivity toward Diet Dr. Pepper is likely not “breaking news” to you. In fact, the last three or four paragraphs completely contradict my previous statement that artists create “art” not simply for the sake of their “art” or for their own, personal purposes, but because they want to appeal to a greater demographic. Before passing judgment on me, though, consider the following: At approximately 11:30-12:00 this morning/afternoon, I will be departing work and heading home, where I will eat a quick lunch and take a quick shower before getting ready to head to a first birthday party: that of our friends’ Sarah and John’s daughter, Ava. Tomorrow, I’ll likely be heading over to our friends’ Caren and Matt’s/Tom and Michelle’s to meet THEIR newborns, Josephine (Josie) Molly and Grace Learned. In less than a month, I’m hosting 50-60 family and friends in my three bedroom, one and a half bathroom Colonial on a little street in suburbia for my own daughter’s first birthday party. Of those 50-60 family and friends, many were in some way, shape, form or loosely connected fashion incarcerated with me for nine months plus in “State Pen.” I say plus ‘cause as anyone who knows me knows, my tenure there only diminished in frequency after May of 1997. Truth be told, I was still a frequent visitor through the summer of 1998. Said people—my fellow “State Pen” inmates—will not be arriving with a six pack of Yeungling or cold, now-defunct Pennsylvania Pizza in tow, but with THEIR little one’s and spouses in tow: “Vato” and Kim plus one; Austen plus three and Tom plus two to name a few.

And it doesn’t end there. Also in attendance will be my little sister Katie plus three and my mother plus three, not to mention my in-laws Mariann, Chuck, Deborah and Andrew plus one. Nicole’s friends whom I met nine years ago when THEY all lived somewhere between South Philadelphia and Temple Pharmacy School and no one lived anyplace else are ALL plus one’s or two’s, with one plus three to boot. And of course, I’m a plus two (plus four if you count my cats whom I’m helpless NOT to think of as my children). All will be arriving at 2:00 PM (RSVP’s pending, of course), and will not be staying until long after a midnight reveler who calls himself “The Mad Chronicler” decides to make a drunken run to the now-defunct Pennsylvania Pizza for “Boones” Malt Liquor. Rather, all will be leaving at approximately 6:00 PM to return home to their respective, nightly routines. Give the baby or babies a bath; get them dressed in their PJ’s and ready for bed; read them their favorite Dr. Seuss bedtime story (Cara’s is “The Lorax”); watch over them as they drift off to sleep in their cribs or beds, their little legs curled up beneath them, their little bodies rising and gently falling as they sleep the sleep of the peaceful… the innocent. Carefully tip-toe out of their room, being careful not to step on the creaky board that lays 14 ½ inches and to the left of the door; being FURTHER careful not to unlatch and re-latch the door too loudly as they exit the room. Retire downstairs and spend the waning hours of the day watching “The Hangover,” and silently muse about how the seemingly unbelievable anecdotes presented in that movie didn’t always seem so unbelievable. Back when we were all incarcerated for nine plus months in “State Pen” PA, and no one lived anyplace else. Silently reminisce… “Remember when…”

…And helplessly return to the U-shaped courtyard outside “The Shrine of Science” where—upon a perfectly pedestrian heating grate inlaid in a perfectly pedestrian walkway—a 21 ½ year old pre-adult sits beneath a steel-grey, central Pennsylvania, winter sky, pondering how directionless and confused his life currently is. As he sips from a warm bottle of Mountain Dew between puffs of a cigarette and watches the first snowflakes from what will eventually amount to a six-inch snow squall alight gently upon the black-iron benches and the leafless trees that dot the courtyard, said pre-adult conceives of a plan: he’ll write an epic poem entitled “Retrospection” in which he’ll look back over the course of his life from a poet’s standpoint in an attempt to gain some clarity and direction. Maybe THEN he’ll have a better idea of where the fuck he’s going. He begins…

“Life is a bloody, ongoing fight… peril is endless and counters the light…”

Said opening lines will eventually grow in to a 10 or 11 stanza, uncompleted epic poem called “Retrospection.” Said 10-11 stanzas will disappear a few weeks later, never to be seen again. Said poet will go on in the next 13 years to graduate college by the skin of his teeth (and 0.7 points in his Ed Psych class), meet and marry the woman of his dreams—the embodiment of his heart, soul and mind—purchase a home with her, begin raising a child with her—the physical embodiment of the his union to the woman of his dreams—and host a first birthday party in which his checkered and LOST past meets his and his fellow inmates from “State Pen’s” stable and FOUND present. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” From “State Pen” PA to suburbia, friends, it’s all academic. That’s “retrospection.” To be able to look back on where you were, and see how far you’ve come. To know that the confusion felt by that 21 ½ year old seeker sitting pensively within “The Shrine of Science,” imaginatively wondering if the low hum beneath the steel grate he sits upon is a Morlock stronghold or a Gatekeeper of the Beam resolved itself in to quite a nifty little life on this side of the proverbial wormhole of existence, i.e. his subjective reality. Being able to see that isn’t simply something personal to the writer. It’s not “art” for the sake of “art.” It’s something that everyone should be able to do. You, me… EVERYONE. And THAT is a comforting thought.

“Have a Nice Day.”

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